Election Watch

Why Does the Kremlin Bother Holding Sham Elections?

Everyone knows that Russia’s election is a fraud. The problem is no dictator ever feels safe enough, and Putin thinks even a fake election will signal to his cronies that he’s still in charge.

By Margarita Zavadskaya

March 2024

On Sunday, March 17, Russia concluded its three-day pantomime to hand Vladimir Putin the presidency for a fifth time. The voting, the first since the invasion of Ukraine, took place on the heels of martyred opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s funeral.

In a country where elections have been farces for more than a decade, this weekend’s vote was more closed and choreographed than ever before. Since Putin launched the war in Ukraine two years ago, his regime has driven out all independent media and clamped down hard on any opposition, culminating in the death of Navalny in the Artic Circle prison one month ago, almost to the day.

And yet, despite the futility of an inevitable outcome, voters massed outside polling stations midday on Sunday in cities across Russia, including Moscow, waiting to spoil their ballots in protest of Putin’s rule and Putin’s war — as the opposition’s Noon Against Putin initiative had called for. This was seen as a way to protest safely while denting the show of support for the regime that Putin and the Kremlin crave.

In addition to the long noontime queues, dissident Russian fighters in Ukraine had crossed the border the night before to launch attacks, timed intentionally for the Sunday vote, inside Russia.

Putin was, of course, declared the winner, with more than 87 percent of the vote and a turnout topping 77 percent. There could be no other outcome. The only question was what the official tally would be and whether there would be any sign of protest.

Given the inevitability of Putin’s continued reign, why does Moscow still bother staging “competitive” national elections? Because they are about more than getting votes, especially this year. The 2024 presidential election was a signaling game aimed at everyone from Putin’s inner circle to ordinary Russians to foreign friends and foes — a flex of strength in wartime, attempting to prove the autocrat’s ability to rally support. Not only is this a way for Putin to keep the confidence of Russia’s elite, but it is an opportunity to demoralize the opposition and opposition-minded voters with a show of unshakable loyalty from his base. No dictator ever feels safe enough. Putin is in constant need of reassurance that the system he built is still reliable.

Playing Charades

Thirteen candidates declared their intention to run against Putin when the campaign opened in November 2023, but only four made it onto the ballot — some of them unknowns with no or modest political records. Not a single independent candidate was allowed in the race. This was not for want of trying. Yekaterina Duntsova, the antiwar former journalist, secured the required endorsements and was expected to be able to obtain the 300,000 signatures needed to run as an independent candidate, but the Central Election Commission denied her registration in December. Longtime political figure Boris Nadezhdin, who also opposes the “special military operation,” attracted long lines of Russian voters wanting to signal their support. This drew the attention of international media and the ire of the regime, prompting a retaliatory state-media campaign. In early February, Nadezhdin, too, was barred from running, despite collecting more than twice the number of required signatures. Other prominent opposition voices are either behind bars or in exile.

The regime visibly tightened its grip on society and on the electoral process ahead of the vote. Wanting to avoid at all costs anything like Belarus’s highly contested 2020 election, Putin opted for preventive repression, cracking down on the remnants of domestic opposition and making massive opposition rallies impossible. If ever there was any doubt of the regime’s determination to maintain control and order, it was banished by the exclusion of independent candidates, including Navalny before his death, as well as the deployment of riot police and other preemptive measures against potential unrest.

To facilitate controlled voter participation, especially in urban centers and annexed territories, the regime extended the voting period to three days and introduced electronic voting in 29 regions. These measures aimed to ensure broad yet manageable voter turnout while also complicating the work of election observers and hampering their ability to collect evidence of fraud — another boon for the regime.

Early voting started on February 26 and lasted until March 14, enabling residents in remote areas of 37 regions of Russia and territories annexed from Ukraine in 2022 to cast their ballots. The expansion of electronic voting to more regions and major industrial cities was meant to streamline the voting process. It would help the regime not only to include more voters but also “to manage” the vote itself, especially in urban areas where protest votes are more likely. More than three-million voters applied to cast their ballots online ahead of the election.

State-controlled media — the only media still operating in Russia — shape the public perception, and they portrayed the election as a routine exercise in democracy, even as war fatigue grows along with fears of more military drafts. Still, the media airing across Russia painted a picture of normalcy and positivity. The Russian internet was awash in state propaganda, both overt and covert, that permeated popular TV shows, influencer platforms, and blogs. The media’s carefully curated portrayal of Putin seldom linked him directly to the war or even explicitly presented him as a candidate. They instead painted him as a competent leader responsible for providing decent livelihoods and doling out state benefits. The other candidates were barely visible.

Putin himself hardly campaigned. He strategically focused on his presidential duties rather than his candidacy, which helped to preserve his image as a leader above the fray. Putin did not participate in any public debates, and he used his annual address to the Federal Assembly to announce massive public spending targeting various constituencies. This essentially was the sum total of his on-air election campaign, and it was discussed many times more in the media than the election itself. The low-key campaign, coupled with glowing media coverage, was intended to make Putin’s Russia look stable and successful.

Russia’s opposition now finds itself in an even more precarious position. It already had to dodge severe repression and search for avenues to work in a political landscape barren of open civic space. Government-sanctioned opposition parties, while ostensibly providing an alternative, typically serve as extensions of the regime, absorbing public discontent and lending a veneer of pluralism to the political process. Their ability to challenge the status quo is inherently limited by their entanglement with the regime’s interests.

The death of Navalny and the marginalization of moderate figures such as Nadezhdin significantly weakened any potential for a protest vote or unified opposition movement. Opposition groups, particularly Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, responded by urging supporters to transform election day into a form of protest, even at the risk of facing arrest and possible detention. Putin’s dissenters, knowing the danger, keep putting their freedom and sometimes their lives on the line to register their objection, their dismay, and their desire for democracy however they can.

At the end of the weekend, the Kremlin triumphantly declared Putin the winner, highlighting the record-high turnout, especially in “unfriendly states” abroad. Yet opposition media and exit polls from overseas indicated that the majority of votes were either against Putin or intentionally invalidated. Tens of thousands of Russians abroad went to Russian consulates displaying symbols of the opposition, as Navalny had called for. Protests also occurred at polling stations within Russia. Putin can claim to have had his pantomime election, but despite all the efforts to stage manage the production, the rising tensions against the regime are showing.

Margarita Zavadskaya is senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Mark Schiefelbein-Pool via Getty Images




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